The dramatic film “Detachment” tackles a lot of tough issues that are not easy to watch, including depression, bullying and sexual exploitation. But Oscar winner Adrien Brody, who stars in “Detachment,” says that it is important for a film like this to be made and seen because it reflects real problems in society that should not be ignored. “Detachment” also takes a hard look at the responsibilities adults have to reach out and help troubled kids who are not their children, when there is often pressure to stay out of other people’s business.
In “Detachment,” Brody plays Henry Barthes, a loner bachelor who works as a substitute teacher at in public high schools. Henry’s solitary life takes an unexpected turn when he lets a runaway teen prostitute named Eric (played by Sami Gayle) live with him on a platonic basis, as he tries to convince her to turn her life around and give up prostitution. Meanwhile, a student named Meredith (played by Betty Kaye, the daughter of “Detachment” director Tony Kaye), who is being bullied and ostracized at school, becomes another troubled teen who has an effect on Henry. At the New York City press junket for “Detachment” I recently caught up with Brody, who candidly expressed his thoughts on the social issues that are depicted in the movie, as well as why he does not aspire to be a big Hollywood star.
Can you talk about working with Sami Gayle?
Well, it’s rare to meet someone that’s so full of life and enthusiasm, and also possesses such a degree of emotional intelligence at a young age, and is not afraid to be vulnerable and intimate. It’s a great age. I mean, I started acting around that age myself.
And I know that right before adolescence really kicks in is a really crucial time — at least in a young man’s development, but I’m sure for a developing girl as well. And there’s a large transformation that happens. And within that, you undergo all kinds of chemical, biological changes and you become …
It’s a new stage of development. And with that comes all kinds of insecurities and things. And I think you’re early, early, early teens, you’ve triumphed childhood and you’re strong. And then you’re into the new wave and figuring things out and pimples and liking girls and not knowing what to do. That’s a harder time to be as free, is what I’m saying. And so she really gave a lot, and it’s the right age to really have a meaningful experience as an actor to help perpetuate your future.
Is there one particular aspect of “Detachment” that struck you the most?
Oh yes. It’s an opportunity for me to teach and spread insight and some knowledge. My aspiration as an actor has always been to find material that speaks to me and that I can share those experiences with others — not just entertain people. I’m not in it for entertainment value.
I think it’s important that I remain interesting and that the work is entertaining, but it should also stem from something greater than that and create this community in the theater. I look to find films that have this kind of relevance, social relevance.
My father was a public-school teacher. I’m a product of public school in New York, so I understand the pitfalls. I understand how much generosity my father has in dedicating a lifetime to teaching [in] a profession that’s not really very glamorous. He was very kind and patient with his students and with myself, and I think a large degree of my success stems from that.
Did you draw inspiration from your father in order to bring the Henry Barthes character to life?
Yes. It’s almost an homage to my father in a lot of ways. He’s very different from that character, thank God. My father overcame a great deal of poverty, and put himself through school, and did something very meaningful. And I admire him for that. I admire him for his patience, which is very hard to have, and his thoughtfulness. He’s very, very good to his students.
You’re dealing with a character that is mentoring someone, but then you’re also mentoring off the camera. What did you learn from that experience? Do you see yourself as doing other things that would include teaching in some way?
I don’t like formal arrangements. That’s what I love about acting: It’s a short-lived kind of peculiar existence. You completely inhabit the character, you get to know all these interesting people — some not so interesting — but the luxury is that you don’t have to see them again. You’re not showing up to the office; you’re not showing up to the same boardroom or whatever.
And I love that freedom. It’s something I do not take for granted. It’s also encouraged me to learn a lot because of its unusual nature. And it’s a privilege for me to share anything that I’ve learned with anybody that’s enthusiastic about learning.
So you can have the exchange in a press conference, you can have that exchange in a bar, you can have that exchange on a film set. It just depends on if the right subject matter comes up, and somebody in that discussion has some insight, and you benefit by being present. And that’s what this film is about: not to be so removed and isolated
So many people do feel that. It’s about getting young minds at the right age, at Sami’s age, and encouraging. It’s a perfect example. You encourage creativity and the belief in pursuing your own individuality.
And that’s a luxury that I have had that my friends have not had. And that, unfortunately, has prevented a lot of my friends who I grew up with from a level of success that I’m fortunate to know and that I attribute to my parents, having come home to a proper home and not just having the influences of my cool friends who were tougher and more “street life” that was unfortunately a lot of people’s home. Because they come home to disjointed, broken families and parents who are dealing with financial strain, marital trouble, their own personal problems, addiction, God knows what.
And this is what this film is really about — not necessarily a criticism of the education system itself, although it’s critical of it. It’s about we need to be a bit more accountable and we need to try harder. It’s understandable, and I am very aware that life is very challenging for most people.
It’s really critical for a student to meet a mentor. Do you have any mentors?
My parents, I think. I had one great teacher in school which was first grade. And I had a wonderful teacher who was from Africa, and she was lovely and kind, and that had an impact. I’ve had a few good teachers, but I didn’t have a tremendously nurturing experience in the school system. And I didn’t have that expectation then anyway.
I didn’t feel neglected. It’s a tall order. Classrooms are overcrowded; they’re on a budget. Textbooks were sh*t. I know what it’s like.
There are a lot of obstacles stacked against kids, but I had the home, and I had parents who were both creative and independent and didn’t shut me up, even though they should have. They let me learn my lessons kind of the hard way, but at the end of the day I am accountable. And the only reason I’ve been accountable is because I know the repercussions of my actions and I have a conscience. And that’s from growing up with people with a conscience and having that instilled in me at a young age.
Is that why we don’t see you in tabloid headlines a lot?
Partially, yeah. Sometimes people get into trouble in life. And when you become a celebrity, there’s more scrutiny. They’re looking, right? You know that. They’re looking to create it because it’s interesting.
It sells publications. People are curious. People love to see someone who they’ve idolized also be a mess. I get that. That’s human nature. But yeah, I try to be responsible. I’m old enough to not behave foolishly if I can help it, and so I try to be conscious.
You mentioned a lot about the learning process as a human being. What have you learned as an actor from doing “Detachment”? What did you like about how Tony Kaye approached this subject matter, because it could have been handled very different in another director’s hands?
Absolutely. Tony is a very spontaneous, creative person … When you meet him, he’s a remarkable, remarkable person, but completely free and very honest, and I like that quality, and I believe him. And I like having a director that I believe what they’re saying. His approach is unusual.
He likes to push the envelope and push the performance. He liked very extreme reactions. Like when I’m yelling at that poor woman at the medical facility, Tony really wanted to go very far. My instinct would be to not necessarily go that far. I’d do my version and he’d keep pushing it. But what he created was a really unpredictable character that you don’t know if he’s stable enough to make it through and do something positive, or if he’s going to do something that is self destructive. So those were lessons, I guess, within that.
I always try to trust in the director. I also learned, not necessarily about acting, but Tony shot a lot of his films, and I aspire to direct one day if I find material that really speaks to me. He really made a lot out of very little. He made lemonade out of lemons. He’d move a practical lamp and that was the lighting reset.
And I’ve worked on movies that they’ll spend four hours lighting the scene and give me 20 minutes. And at the end of the day, it looks good, but we just banged that out. And Tony and I spent the time working and allowing me to do my work, which is really important for the film, not just for my own ability, but for the film. So I liked his style and his unpredictability. We got on well, so it was really collaborative.
At the beginning of “Detachment” almost seemed like a documentary. Did you go into any real high schools for research?
I had a lifetime knowledge of that world, so I didn’t have to go to school. And actually, stepping into the public school, it’s like when you smell something you haven’t smelled in years, and it’s like whoa! It brings back all kinds of memories whether it’s a good smell or a bad smell.
It floods you with all kinds of stuff that you forgot, and that’s what shooting in a public school is like. You went to public school and you go back into a public school and the smell, the linoleum, the bad chairs, the long hallways, the drab surroundings — you get it again, and you’re reminded of those things.
I understood a lot about what this character was dealing with. I think all young men understand anger and having anger and deep frustration and having anger be the reaction to your own pain and suffering. That’s how you learn how to process it, and it’s not necessarily the solution but it somehow is a defense mechanism. So this poor guy is just simmering constantly and trying to keep it together.
“Detachment” has been two years in the works, and it’s coming out at a very interesting time here in New York, where there’s all this focus on upheaval in the Department of Education. Do you think that releasing it at this time is completely coincidental and will it add a different layer of interest? And is it a good thing?
Perhaps, perhaps. Sure, I think it’s all a good thing. I think any kind of increased awareness of problems, whether we have a solution or not, is room for growth, right? I do think it’s a very complex, problematic institution.
All of these systems are somewhat deeply flawed and somewhat failing. Public education, public health, and there is bureaucracy and there are all these things and there are political agendas, and financial, because of our economy there are financial cuts and motivating forces — all these things that are beyond the primary goal of the institution itself.
What I took from this film is how important it is, and how crucial it is for us to educate young people before they’re in the public school system. In the home, in your local community — not necessarily being part of an actual school system, but taking the responsibility to teach, to impart knowledge, to encourage individuality, to encourage creativity.
If you go to a juvenile detention facility where young kids are incarcerated before they’re adults, you give them a real acting workshop. They’re great actors. They’ll pull from so many terrible experiences in their lives and things they know and things they’ve put on, on the street, to survive the other kids … everybody’s kind of putting on their thing.
And they’re great. And they’ll make successful actors. So that’s something I’ve thought of doing often, to do a workshop in that sense. But there are opportunities even for very troubled people to find outlets to help them creatively maneuver through this.
Sami Gayle said that when take on a role as an actor, it isn’t because of money but because you feel the connection. How much does it happen in the industry?
Well, it’s a really important question. Not often enough, right? If you look at the list of movies that you have to see and the people that you interview, [there are] not that many. I mean, you may not love the [“Detachment”] movie; it’s fine. You cannot deny it’s brave and powerful and evocative and relevant and important.
And it’s very hard for films like this to get funding and everything because of the nature. It’s a business at the end of the day, and people want to make safe bets on their investments. It’s been a dilemma for me, because in one sense I’m not perceived to be as successful as I should be because I’m not a big box-office draw.
Well, the reason I’m not that is because I made a conscious decision to make more interesting films and support independent filmmakers and try and find this, even with a degree of visibility that I can have access to all that. And it’s a shame, because then it prevents also access to certain box-office kinds of film, because people view things in a very compartmentalized way. You cannot be both.
You did well with “Predators” though.
I did well with “Predators,” sure. Yeah, the film did well. “Predators” was a big coup for me because rightfully so I don’t fit the build of what the iconic action hero character is, which is what is great about it and is what I told them would be great about it.
And I said, “Why would you want to do a knockoff of a buff guy stepping into this great ‘80s character that [Arnold] Schwarzenegger played? Why would you want to just regurgitate that and do a version of that, when everybody knows what a soldier looks like?”
Open up the paper; they’re not big, ripped, [Vin] Diesel guys. Military minds have to be emotionally hardened, intelligent, cutthroat individuals. And that’s very different from me.
And so I liked the idea of playing a character that’s completely cut-off emotionally. Physically, you have to be able to handle a situation, but you’ve got a fully automatic shotgun and you know all these tactics and training, you’re lethal. And that’s what it’s about. And even in the original “Predator,” not to go too much on that, but his brawn wasn’t what defeated them. He went back to the earth and he outsmarted them.
But that’s a coup, and that was not because I’ve done all these great independent films and I’m perceived as a good actor. They believe in me as an actor, but they took a big risk in hopes that I can deliver what an audience wants, and that doesn’t necessarily fit the mold. So it was very brave of them and [“Predators” producer] Robert Rodriguez and the director, and so I appreciate that.
What can you say about your movie “High School”?
“High School” is very different. It’s not really a commentary about school. It was a chance for me to do a very broad comedy, which again was motivated by people’s lack of understanding that I have a sense of humor. So that’s purely the motivation.
I play the antithesis of this [Henry Barthes] character. I play a marijuana dealer who these kids steal from, and I go after them. He’s like the Francis Ford Coppola of the weed-growing industry. A connoisseur of every kind of thing. It was really fun.
And you also chose to do “InAPPropriate Comedy.” Can you talk about that movie and any other of your upcoming movies?
I love comedy, and I also love experimenting with my work and being playful and taking risks. And that was a friend of mind directing some small sketch comedy kind of thing, and it was this really broad comedy in another way. So those are two comedic things that will come out probably this year , and people will think I’ve lost my mind. And then I’ll do another heavy drama.
And then I just did a film in China. I just came back two days ago from working with Feng Xiaogang, who is an amazing filmmaker. And I spoke a bit of Chinese and worked on an epic war film. I’ve realized I’ve now delved into the early ‘40s in World War II and that era three times now. I was in the South Pacific in “The Thin Red Line,” I was in Europe with “The Pianist,” and now China had a tremendous famine where all these people were completely displaced. And so it’s their story, which is tragic.
For more info: “Detachment” website
RELATED LINKS ON nextooze.com:
Interview with Adrien Brody for “Splice”
Interview with Adrien Brody for “Predators”
“Detachment” news and reviews